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Associated Press
Santa Claus gestures toward first lady Michelle Obama, at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Why do kids believe a chubby guy in a flying sleigh can deliver joy across America? Because their parents do. A whopping 84 percent of grown-ups were once children who trusted in Santa's magic, and lots cling to it still.

Things are changing fast these days, with toddlers wishing for iPads, grade schoolers emailing their Christmas lists and moms wrestling over bargain toys at midnight sales. Despite all the pressures on the rituals of the season, an AP-GfK poll confirms that families are sticking by old St. Nick.

"It's important for kids to have something to believe in," says great-grandmother Wanda Smith of Norman, Okla.

And so they do. Year after year, Santa Claus survives the scoffers and the Scrooges and the 6-year-old playground skeptics. He endures belittling commercials that portray him shopping at Target or taking directions from an iPhone.Two-thirds of parents with kids under 18 say Santa's an important part of their celebrations this year. Moms, especially, have a soft spot for the man in red — 71 percent of them say he's important, and that's a big jump from 58 percent just five years ago.

His overall popularity is up slightly from an AP-AOL poll in 2006, before the recession hit. In these bleaker times of homes lost to foreclosure and parents sweating out their next paychecks, the poll shows Santa riding high with families both wealthy and poor.

Maybe that's because the big guy's always known how to stretch a dollar to make a kid smile.

Smith, whose childhood gifts were mostly handmade by her mother — things like cookies and knit scarves — remembers that every year Santa Claus managed to put one present under the tree for her to share with her two brothers (four more siblings came later).

"One year it was a bicycle, one year we had a sled. One year we got a puppy — his name was Jack and he was a border collie," recalls Smith, now 70.

"We didn't have a lot," she said, "but we didn't know it. Our mother and daddy made it a wonderful time for us."

In multicultural America, Father Christmas isn't just for Christians any more. Three-fourths of non-Christian adults say they believed in Santa when they were children. And half feel he's important to their holiday celebrations now.